Baher is a marathon runner. At short notice, and on the recommendation of a friend, he had taken time to talk to me. He wore a white tracksuit. He had short cropped hair, and gave the impression of bounding as he walked into the café. He spoke haltingly at first but grew into the conversation. He was eloquent, to the point, and a great enthusiast. He filled our conversation with positive energy. It seemed as if he had found the secret of being alive and wanted to share it.
Thank you for the opportunity. When I heard that you are writing a book about running, I thought yes, definitely I will help. I don’t even have any issue if my name appears. It’s totally fine.
My name is Baher. Originally I’m Moroccan. I also have German citizenship through my wife. I came to the UK maybe 13, or 14 years ago. I was invited to run a race here and then I decided to stay. I have been living in London for such a long time now that it feels like home. I came from a poor family, and my whole intention was first to leave Morocco and then to run. I came to the UK, met my wife and got married.
We worked really hard to go through the process of getting the right documents, and being allowed to stay and work normally. When I first came to the UK, I wasn’t able to do any running at all. It was hard to do work and try to live. I had to pull out of running for maybe five years. I was so focused on getting the right to stay, and to be able to work like normal people. It was impossible to run.
When I arrived, I mainly worked in restaurants. I did a ridiculous amount of hours. 14 hours, 16 hours, with only one hour in the middle for a break. When you go for your break after five hours of standing, your legs are aching from the tiredness but you have to go back again. In the meantime, I was studying for a qualification in accounting. When that finished, I managed to get a good job. It’s been great for my life and my family to have that. We are now secure. That’s all about me. It’s a short story.
I started running when I was seven. When I started, the coaches asked me if I wanted to run. I said yes. I always wanted to run fast, but I was really bad. I would go to the national championships and come 80th, or 90th. When you are young, life is about finding yourself and trying to prove to people that you are good at something. That was why I ran.
When I started running, it was painful. I had to do everything myself. It’s a totally individual sport. No one else can do it for you. You only have your legs, your heart, your lungs. That makes it one of the best ways to show people your ability and your skill. When you run well, you prove to people how strong you are.
Some people don’t understand how hard it is to train for a marathon. If you go for a run on Sunday for two hours, you probably need about five hours after the run to relax so that the body can recover. It’s hard to balance this with work, studying and having a family.
I’m not a full time athlete so I have to train smart. I’m trying to run at an elite level, but I still have family to look after. I don’t make any money from the sport, so I have to make sure that I am able to manage all of this myself. It takes a lot.
When I’m training, I try to use all of my free time in the right way. I run to work rather than take the bus.
I hate running with a backpack, it’s not a healthy way to run. I keep my clothes at work so that my bag is less full. When I finish work, I run home. I still have to do exams so I take my books and study in my breaks. That’s the way I try to fit things around. If I have a day off from running, I make sure that I’m with my wife and that we’re doing things together. I don’t do this just to satisfy my wife, I do it to make sure that this part of my life, my family, works right. We choose to be together so I have to make sure that she is not dismissed.
My wife hates running, but she is always supportive. She always encourages me to train. When we go on holiday together, she likes to sit on the beach. That doesn’t always suit me because sitting under the sun can make you tired. Sunbathing can be a pleasure if you don’t run, but for someone who wants to recover between training sessions, it is not an ideal way to recover. But I do this for her. Family is important.
I was gutted to not be able to run properly when I first came here. It hurt and I gained a lot of weight because I wasn’t training. Thinking about starting to run properly again with all of the extra weight made it even harder to go back. When I came back home my legs were sore and I was tired. I didn’t feel like running. To train hard you need peace of mind. Your brain needs to be clear, and you need to be motivated. I wasn’t motivated at all.
What pushed me to start training again was the Isle of Man running festival. This happens every year in the Easter holidays. It’s three days of running and very social. You get to race against really top quality guys from all the universities across the UK. They are really fast. Some of them run for Team GB. I agreed to go with the club and I finished last in the first race. I got beaten by all the girls. I told myself that I would come back the next year and smash the race.
But I wasn’t training and you can’t take fitness for granted. The fact that I used to run quick was not going to take me anywhere. In this sport, if you respect your body, if you respect what you eat and drink, you are able to train hard and run hard. If you don’t, then it is impossible.
When I came back to London, it was Ramadan. During Ramadan, of course, all Muslims fast. So I reset my targets. I did the fasting and during the night I watched what I ate. Over the month, I lost about 10kg and still felt good. So I started running properly. That helped me to lose a bit more. Over three months, I lost about 15kg and took it from there.
The year afterwards was the London Marathon. That was in 2016, and I ran the first marathon of my life in 2:29:59. That was how it started.
To be honest, fasting makes you fly. When I started training and fasting at the same time, my wife insisted that this was not healthy. She asked how I could train without drinking any water. We went to the GP. The GP said that if I trained close to when I was going to eat then there wouldn’t be any issue. So long as I continued to fuel myself during the night, my body would adapt.
The human body is amazing, it will adapt to anything that you change. It can learn to save water. During Ramadan, I do consider things like high temperatures. If it’s too hot I won’t go on a run. At midday, with the whole of the day left to go, I would never go on a run. But in the evening, just before nightfall it’s not a problem.
One thing that the GP said was that when you fast, you don’t burn the food that you eat during the night, you burn the fat stored in your body. I find that this gives me more and stronger energy. When it comes to Ramadan I race really quickly. It’s hard work. During Ramadan, whenever I am hungry, or thirsty, I always say: “It’s only a few hours. It’s only eight hours. The day is going to go and I will get through it.”
Every year, I wait for the month to come and think it’s time to get a bit quicker. It’s exciting. I’m not asking people to do it themselves, but this is my opinion.
My main focus now, is the marathon and half marathon. I am very close to running a national record in both distances.
I run normally seven days a week, with one day off every two weeks. I always try to fit in two runs on a Monday. Both are really slow. I run them at eight-minute-mile pace. In the club, I’m actually getting known as the guy who trains slow and races quick. Monday is meant to be a recovery session. I try to go for eight miles in the morning and then eight miles in the evening.
On Tuesday in the morning I do a really short three-mile run, this is also very easy. Then in the evening there is a hard session. This is the main session and it hurts. This will be about six to eight miles of volume, plus a warm up and warm down.
On Wednesday I put in a really easy run. This will be 13-14 miles and I take it slowly. On Thursday I will do two easy runs again. Friday is always the slowest day. I just go for a half-hour run in the evening.
Saturday is another hard day. I put in a tempo run in the morning, and then a long run at close to marathon pace. I will probably run half a marathon in 68 minutes, then at night I will go for an easy jog for maybe half an hour.
On Sunday, I do my long run. This will be about 18-20 miles. That distance can increase when I come close to the marathon. During the week, I always try to average between 95 and 100 miles.
My warm up is always three miles. The warm down is the same. A warm down only needs to be about ten minutes So long as you slow down and allow your body to recover that should be sufficient.
I use the warm down to get more quantity in my training. Full time runners won’t do a 30-minute warm down but I don’t have enough time to add another session so I warm down for longer.
The difference between me and an elite runner is that they would have the time to put in another run. For me, the next run is on the morning when I’m going to work. To make that run longer, I would have to get up at 4am, which doesn’t give me time to recover. So I can’t do it.
Running in races is totally different to running in training. If you don’t feel the difference when you race it means that you are not going to race right.
In training I am always tired. When I race, I am always fresh.
I taper my training before races to make sure that I am ready to go. Adrenaline from the stress of the race always gives me a massive boost. When people say they are relaxed, they will not race right. You need to have a bit of anticipation but there is a limit. If you are too stressed you will find that your body is not able to breathe and not able to run, even though you are training well.
Three weeks before the marathon, myself and a few of my training group went to Morocco to train at altitude. The first ten days, all of these guys were training with me and trained hard, but we didn’t overdo it. If you go to altitude, you are looking to get the benefit of additional red blood cells without putting your body under too much stress. Most of the guys returned to London after ten days, and I was left alone. This was when I started to think about the race. I had no one to distract me.
I knew that I was training really well, and I knew that I was fit enough to run a national record, but my stress was higher than normal. I had a few days where I was not able to sleep. I thought that there was something not right. I normally start thinking about a race one or two days before the start. It wasn’t normal to be affected ten days before the race.
My wife is a psychotherapist. She said that the best thing for me would be to talk to someone that I felt comfortable talking with. I got in touch with a friend of mine, who is an athlete from Gibralta. I chatted to her almost every day. That helped a lot. The confidence I got from someone telling me that I was going to take the race apart was huge. She turned my stress into something positive. Wow, it made me feel good.
The day of the race, I knew that I would be running with some seriously quick guys. In my group, there were four, or five guys who had run for GB before and they were fast. Before the race started we agreed that we would run together and try to run under 2:20. Running with a group of people can give you confidence. You settle into a rhythm and can get a break from the wind. It’s better than running alone.
On the start line, everything is gone. There is no time to think about the race or worrying. There is just your heartbeat and nothing else. The only thought in my mind is that I am going to kill myself. I’m going to give it all I can. All I can, I’m going for. That’s what’s going on inside my mind. All I can. All I can. All I can.
From the first mile, I felt really strong and comfortable. I felt like I was not putting any effort in. After three miles, I felt amazing. The more I ran, the more comfortable I was. When I saw people on the course, calling my name, it gave me goosebumps. I felt like I had just started the race. The more the miles went up the better I felt. In my head, I couldn’t wait for mile 15, or mile 18. It was a pleasure to be running.
But I had two bad issues. First I got a stitch at mile ten. There were two options. Either I was going to pull out from the race because of the pain, or I had to drop from the group and just let my ambition go. But I knew that if I pulled out my race would be finished, and if I dropped back my race would be finished as well. There would be no way to catch those guys again. So I started distracting myself. I thought about what people would say to me if I ran a quick time, and after a mile or two the pain went away.
The second issue was the shoes I used. Everyone I knew was running with the new Nike Vaporfly 4%. I used to run in other shoes, but all of the other top guys were going to wear this shoe to race, so I thought that I should race with it, if only because of the money that I had paid for the shoes. So I used them even though I had only trained with them once. That was a big mistake.
From mile 16 I started to feel my quads. They felt tired. I think it is because the shoes have a lot of cushioning and I run sitting down a little bit. All of the impact went through my quads, rather than distributing between my hamstrings, quads and calves. When I started to feel pain, it was too early in the race for it to be an issue with my fitness. That got inside my head. During the last five miles I really struggled because of the shoes. Up to about five miles to go, I was still on course for a national record, but the further I ran, the slower I went. As the miles ticked on, I felt myself slowing and slowing. There was nothing I could do. In the last kilometre, I looked at my watch and I was outside the national record time so I let myself ease off. I was disappointed by the result as I knew that I was ready to break the record, but the shoes didn’t allow me to do what I wanted.
It was a lesson for me. You should only wear, or dress, or eat, or drink what works for you. Don’t do things just because they work for other people. Just because the world champion runs with these shoes does not mean it will work for you.
The effect of running a marathon is not too bad, as long as you don’t overdo it. The whole idea is to give yourself time to heal, and to understand that we are human beings. We run with our body and it takes time to recover. We are not machines. It’s not like you finish a marathon and can then take on another within three weeks, or four weeks. If you do this, you will put your body under a lot of stress and the potential risk of injury can be high.
One of the bad things you face as a runner is when you get injured. You start thinking that all is lost. But you have to be smart. You have to accept things. Sometimes you train hard and things go wrong. But there is always a new challenge.
My coach always tells me to listen to my body. One thing that people in England do totally wrong is to get too caught up with the times of their training runs. There is a running app called Strava. It’s like Facebook for athletes. I know so many people who are so concerned with the quantity of the training runs they do that they don’t think how it will affect their racing. They might see that a friend has run 15km, and then go out immediately to try and beat their distance or time.
People who run their hard sessions hard, and their easy sessions hard don’t give their body enough time to recover. My coach tells me not to look at anyone else on Strava. I need to listen to my body and see what my body feels like doing. If somebody can train without taking a day off that’s fine. But I personally always need a day off to fully recover. Most of the Kenyans, take every Sunday off.
If the coach feels that I’m not working well, he will tell me to ease off. Other people might get you to keep going. People tell me that this makes them feel mentally strong, but you can’t be mentally strong if you’re body is not in the right place. Whatever works for you, won’t always work for everyone. This is running. Otherwise the best runner in the world would be the one who runs the most miles and that is not the case.
You have to think about recovery. People need to experience the benefits of rest. Once you start racing seriously, you realize this. It’s what I saw in Morocco. I was training with the fastest 5000m runner in France. He’s so quick. Another guy who was with us runs 3:31 in the 1500m. We went for a run and in the first mile one of them said that he felt a bit of tiredness in his calf. So he stopped running and took the day off to get a massage. That was all he did. He wasn’t worried that his mileage for the week was dropping. But when it came to racing, he could give it.
That is what you should care about. The day of the race. When it comes to race, you should feel that you are going to kill it. That you are going to go hard.
There is only one thing that you need to be a true runner. You need to love the pain. You come to a point in a race when you are a small group of guys running together. I’m tired, my body is aching, but I tell myself to stick with them like glue. I say: “Right. I will go one more minute. One more minute. One more minute.”
Then the race is going and you will find that you can go with it. In the last five miles of a marathon, when I’m really tired, I will say: “One more mile. One more mile.” Then it’s only four miles. Then three miles. The more the distance gets shorter the more you can tell yourself to carry on.
You need to love this game. Everyone is in pain. You need to be able to feel inside you that the pain is nice. I distract myself by thinking about the finish. I think about what people will say to me. You learn to push your body to its limits with experience. You think that there is a limit to your body but there isn’t. The more that you push, the more you find. You will never be able to get to your final point.
I love the pain when I race, but I hate the pain in training. The coach sends the session to the group the day before. Then I start thinking about it from then. I’m like, bloody hell tomorrow is going to be hard.
I finish work at five, then I have to run to the park, sometimes it’s raining or maybe there is snow. Then there is an hour to travel back home and by the time you are done, it’s almost nine o’clock. Every week I think about this. I know it’s going to be cold, and that guys there are going to push me, and the journey back home is a long way. But when it comes to race day I use this experience. I say to myself that there is no way I am going to let this race go. I have worked too hard for that. I remember the bad days and I use them. Racing is always much easier than those bad days. On the day of the race, your body will feel fresh. If you are tapering properly then you shouldn’t struggle.
I have been asked to run for Morocco in the African games. My main target will be to run a national record. My second target is to come closer to the qualification time for the Olympics. This is now 2:12:00, which is really hard. In the last Olympics, the qualifying time was 2:19:00. Considering that I’m not a full time athlete that’s going to be hard. But there is always a good point. Someone from my training group ran 2:13:00 this year. He works full time and he has a family. At the moment, he is a better class of athlete than me but if he can do it, why not me?
Hopefully I will get more support from the Moroccan Federation. I will take it step by step. First I will try to run under 2:19:00. Then I will look at Olympic qualification. That will definitely be my next aim. I have just managed to buy an altitude sleeping system. Hopefully that will pay me back.
I love running. It’s part of my life. As much as I am trying to improve in my work, or my study, or saving to buy a house, running is a major factor in my life. I still have 10 or 15 years to work on my running and improve. I would not want my life just to be going to work, coming home from work and going out with friends. That is not enough. As long as what you do does not make you dismiss your family and kids, then it is good. Any sport is good, but running specifically is a pleasure that more people should definitely try.
Inside everyone is a champion. You need to be able to know how to get this champion out. If I looked at myself three years ago, you would not recognise me.
You don’t need to do weights to be a runner. You don’t need to watch what you eat. Running is good from every point of view. You can eat what you like, you can drink what you like. You can do anything. When you run, you build a fire inside you.
In running, we say that there are no bad people. The community is amazing. You meet someone in the canal, and you start talking. You ask how far they are running. You ask if they want to join you. Sometimes they do.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019